Keeping Score

Should A Former Man Be Able To Fight Women?

Transgender fighter Fallon Fox is sparking a debate in MMA

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From left: Allanna Jones and transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox at a press conference promoting their CFA fight taking place on May 24.

When Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Fallon Fox, the former Burton Boyd, told Sports Illustrated in early March that she used to be a man, the condemnation came quickly. “All hell broke loose, man,” says Jorge de la Noval, CEO of the Championship Fighting Alliance, the promotion which staged a Fox fight, which she won in 39 seconds, just five days prior. De la Noval was flooded with phone calls and emails, insisting that Fox — who got gender reassignment surgery back in 2006 — was some sort of sideshow who should never be allowed to fight women. It’s one thing for a male-t0-female transgender athlete to, say, play tennis against other women, like Reneé Richards famously did back in the 1970s. Or even basketball: that’s not a combat sport. But MMA is brutal. Letting Fallon Fox back in the ring could be dangerous.

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Matt Mitrione called Fox a “lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak. And I mean that.” The UFC suspended Mitrione for 16 days, and fined him an undisclosed amount. “She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it’s still the same bone structure a man has,” UFC star Ronda Rousey told the New York Post. “It’s an advantage. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Fox says she anticipated the negative feedback. “I’m not surprised at all,” Fox, 37, tells TIME. “It’s part of our history as human beings. People that we don’t understand, we always try to make fun of, of sensationalize.”

(MORE: Transgender Athletes – Why Lana Lawless Is Suing The LPGA) 

Despite the backlash, Fox is still fighting against females. The Florida State Boxing Commission has licensed Fox to fight as a woman, and Fox will face Allanna Jones in a CFA fight in Coral Gables, Florida on Friday night. Cable channel AXS TV has picked up  Fox’s card, which begins at 9:00 eastern, for a national telecast. “AXS TV has a long history of broadcasting the highest quality and most compelling non-UFC fights out there,” Mark Cuban, founder, chairman and president of AXS TV, writes TIME in an email. “We have long-term partnerships with several top end promoters. They do the match making, we don’t pick the fighters. That said, we are really excited to have a card with Fallon Fox on AXS TV. There is no question there is quite a bit of curiosity about her.”

Science seems to be on Fox’s side.  “Male to female transsexuals have significantly less muscle strength and bone density, and higher fat mass, than males,” says Dr. Eric Vilain, director of the Institute For Society And Genetics at UCLA. Vilain examined Fox’s medical records and wrote a letter supporting her bid to fight as a woman. He also helped the Association of Boxing Commissions write its transgender policy. In order to fight against women, male-to-female athletes who had surgery after puberty must show that “surgical anatomical changes have been completed, including external genitalia and gonadectomy” and that “hormone therapy appropriate for the assigned sex (female) has been administered by a board certified endocrinologist or internist, pediatrician, or D.O. or any other specialist known to have significant knowledge with transsexuals and transgender individuals for a MINIMUM of TWO YEARS after gonadectroy. This is the current understanding of the minimum amount of time necessary to obviate male hormone gender related advantages in sports competition.”

Still, could Fox be stronger than the other women because she used to be a man? “She could be,” says Vilain. “But sports is made up of competitors who, by definition, have advantages for all kinds of genetics reasons. And no one complains about it.” A woman runner may be naturally faster, a woman basketball player taller, than her cohort. To exclude Fox because of her surgery, Vilain argues, would be discriminatory.

Plus, Fox’s low testosterone could offset any advantage. Since Fox has neither testicles nor ovaries, which both produce testosterone, her levels are likely lower than those of her female competitors. Fox says her training partner, who is a woman, is stronger than her, and has more endurance. “So I really have to work on my technique,” Fox says. She’s not winning on brute strength alone, she says. Fox is winning because she has serious fighting skills.

While growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Burton Boyd didn’t dream of a fighting career. He dreamt of becoming like his sister. “Ever since I was a child I had those feelings,” Fox says now. “It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s like trying to describe the color blue to someone who is color blind. What I can say is that it’s a subconscious feeling, drive, that tells you to want your body to the be the opposite sex of what you were born.”

Despite these feelings, Fox fathered a child at 19. She returned from a stint in the Navy, and became a truck driver to raise money for the 2006 reassignment surgery, in Thailand. Around 2008, a trainer at Fox’s gym introduced her to MMA. “I saw that there were other female fighters out there,” Fox says. “It just hooked me in. Women were fighting? That’s awesome. It was empowering and wonderful to watch. And I wanted to be just like them.”

This is Fox’s third pro fight. Nobody has lasted more than two minutes in the cage with her. Now, she’s not only fighting for herself, but for transgender acceptance. “I’m impressed that the CFA is sticking its neck out and letting her fight,” says Dr. Christopher Estes, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Miami Health System. “And Fallon Fox has a lot of guts too. She’s bringing transgender identity to the forefront. We’re now having a discussion – where do transgender folks fit into society? People struggling with these issues can say, ‘This is someone I identify with, someone I can see.’ She validates people.”

To Fox, the reaction to her bouts is like the response to MMA at the start. “People thought that MMA fighters were going to kill each other in the cage,” says Fox. “That just hasn’t happened.” Over time, her critics may not be as hysterical. “It’s just an educational thing that needs to happen with people,” she says. For now, she’s trying her best to drown out the negativity. “Every day I wake up and see myself in the mirror, it’s a high moment,” Fox says. “I know who I am. And it feels really good to be who I am.”

MORE: Women’s UFC Star Ronda Rousey, Unplugged

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